Great Cake Mystery cover
Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case

by Alexander McCall Smith; illustrated by Iain McIntosh

An international star as an adult in the phenomenally successful The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Precious Ramotswe is here a slip of a girl, living in Botswana with her loving father and just beginning to think about being a detective when she grows up. Her chance appears sooner than she expects, though, when her classmates’ carefully cherished sweet snacks start disappearing whenever they’re left unattended. She’s even more determined to find the culprit when people start unfairly accusing and subsequently harassing a boy, Poloko, based largely on his known love of sweets. Finding the local monkeys in possession of some of the spoils, she realizes that the mischievous critters have been helping themselves to the kids’ treats, but she also knows that she’ll have to ensure the monkeys are caught red-handed by the class in order to convince them of Poloko’s innocence.

Stylistically, this is a splendidly accessible and inviting volume. The third-person present-tense narration is simultaneously matter-of-fact and engaging, setting the scene for young readers with straightforward explanation (“Botswana is the country she lives in. It is down toward the bottom of Africa”) and describing the stakes in kid-understandable terms (“You can lose a plain piece of bread and not think twice about it, but when you lose one spread thickly with strawberry jam it’s an altogether more serious matter”). That simple declarative style also allows Smith to lay out some truths about humanity and its tendency to believe what it finds it convenient to believe until forcibly convinced; in fact, Precious is a hero not just because of her blossoming deductive abilities but because they operate in the service of her strong moral sense. The characterization is economical and effective, and it ups the moral challenge by demonstrating that nice, likable kids are capable of jumping to conclusions and inspiring a group to cry “Thief! Thief” without justification (on the other hand, “Precious wonders what it would be like to hear somebody shout that about you—especially if you are not a thief and never have been”). This ethical slant on the situation and the role of the detective are highly original in a book for this audience, and since they’re explored with the simple clarity of playground fairness, they’ll be immediately accessible to the readership. Yet the book is nonetheless a fairly light-hearted work, keeping the situation in perspective, cushioning it with details about the setting and Precious’ life, and the adorable villains and Precious’ clever trap to catch them out are sure to delight young mystery fans.

The unusual art employs delicately stylized prints that sometimes recall the detailed control of Michael McCurdy, in a limited palette of cherry red, chocolate brown, and soft gray that’s sometimes only used one or two colors at a time. The illustrations interweave comfortably with the text, keeping the look of each spread open and inviting, but they also support the storytelling, offering easy-to-read phonetic takes on character names, clever diagrammatic elements (a cutaway of Poloko’s pocket reveals his sweets stash), and a helpful frontispiece that locates Botswana in Africa and includes a map of the country.

The book’s easy readability makes it inviting to youngsters, and with its accessible voice and short chapters, it would make an appealing readaloud as well. This is a perfect early detective tale for those not quite ready for sleuths such as Margolis’ Maggie Brooklyn (A Girl’s Best Friend, BCCB 5/11) and Frazier’s Suzanna Snow (Midnight Tunnel, BCCB 3/11), but all kinds of readers will enjoy befriending Smith’s charming and independent-minded heroine.

--Deborah Stevenson, Editor

The Great Cake Mystery cover

Cover image from The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case ©2012 by Iain McIntosh.  Used by permission of Anchor Books/Random House.

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This page was last updated on July 1, 2012.